Small Batch Bourbon, A Perspective

In recent years, a lot happened in the small batch bourbon industry. New distilleries sprouted up, new brands launched, and the demand for Bourbon products has exploded across the United States. However, that increase in demand is not the only reason for such a Bourbon Renaissance. No, one name may have brought a lot of brands to light: MGP.

While some brands will make their liquor all in-house, from distillation to aging to bottling, some opt out of the distillation. Building a still is an expensive endeavor, one that can be fraught with difficulties and start-up costs often beyond the means of new distillers. Enter MGP, an Indiana wholesale distiller that produces the distillate for over fifty different brands around the world. Able to produce the base distillate for a new distillery, they also have warehouses to age their product for sale to brands. This service can cut 8-10 years off the time needed to launch a new brand and give them time to age their future product while still earning income.

Birth of the Renaissance: Small Batch Defined

As this Renaissance has mushroomed, these small brands can market their small batch bourbon because the term is wholly unregulated. Where there were 100 distilleries in the US a mere ten years ago, today there are over 1,400. These new businesses turn to someone like MGP to build their brand while waiting for the needed years to age their product. That can put a major crimp on the term small batch bourbon because you can hardly call it “small batch” if the largest wholesale distiller makes it, can you?

Despite the inherent logical fallacy in calling them small batch bourbon, the law doesn’t cover criteria for the term. Companies like Bulleit, High West, or Templeton can buy from MGP and call them small batch because of their own internal rules. Then again, so can the major players like Beam and Jack Daniels, just by following their internal guidelines for the definition of small batch bourbon.

Some of those definitions are as follows:

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon

Knob Creek Small BatchIn 1992, Knob Creek launched their small batch bourbon without much fanfare. At that time, high-priced bourbon was not very common in the market, and brand loyalty often won with gimmicks. In the following years, America witnessed a phenomenal increase in the availability of small batch bourbon. The consumers also started to spend much more money buying bourbon.

Knob Creek still maintains its identity as a favorite small batch whiskey in the US market. They offer four different varieties of whiskey – Straight Rye Whiskey, Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and Single Barrel Reserve. The Kentucky Straight Bourbon is sweet and bold whereas the Single Barrel Reserve is unblended bourbon.

In 2017, Knob Creek released their 25th Anniversary Bourbon which was the first unfiltered, single barrel bourbon they released. The product retailed for $130 a bottle, with 300 barrels that originated 300 different bourbon versions.

Four Roses Single Barrel and Small Batch Bourbon

Four Roses ages their Bourbon Whiskey for not less than eight years. They make use of new white-oak casks which are charred for the aging of bourbon. The Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon from Four Roses consists of 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. By their definition, because there is one single barrel for the bottle, it is small batch by nature.

Four Roses Small Batch BottleThey also market a small batch product that contains four of their ten available mash bills: OBSK, OESK, OBSO, and OESO. While each batch can vary by design, the master distiller has stated the average is 250 barrels per batch. Unlike their single barrel, the age is generally no younger than six years and no older than eight years, bringing an average somewhere in the six-and-a-half year range.

Where many of the other brands on the list have rickhouses of several stories, the distinction they carry is their one-story warehouses. Mixed with their lighter burn on their barrels (between a #3 and a #4), they offer some of the smoothest and most flavorful batches.

Buffalo Trace and E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch Bourbon

EH Taylor Small Batch BottleThe Buffalo Trace Distillery is on the banks of the Kentucky River in Frankfort, Kentucky. They have produced bourbon whiskey for more than two centuries from that site. Today, the Buffalo Trace Distillery makes over a dozen different brands of bourbon and whiskey, including their ever-popular E.H. Taylor, Jr. brand. Named for the father of the bourbon industry, Colonel E.H. Taylor, the brand is in honor of his powerful legacy. Among the varieties of bourbon produced under the brand, the small batch is also bottled-in-bond like we discussed in a previous post.

One distinction for their brand is that the E.H. Taylor bottles are all made from a bourbon barrel aged in Warehouse C, a building built by Colonel Taylor himself in 1881. While they do not mention how many barrels go into a small batch, we assume there are less than one hundred per batch because of the limited number of barrels available to make the blend. Beyond the unknown number of barrels, the bottled-in-bond designation also means the final product has water added to lower the ABV before the bottling process.

Willett Pot Still Reserve

Willett Pot Still Reserve​Probably their most popular small batch bourbon, the Pot Still Reserve from Willett Distillery initially was an expression of other distiller’s whiskey. Until they began distilling in-house again in 2012, Willett purchased distillate from other companies and aged the barrels in-house. Starting in 2014, the Pot Still Reserve changed from a single-barrel to a small batch product, incorporating some in-house distillate. As barrels reach the minimum four year age, more and more in-house distillate will begin to join the batch as they bottle.

Because of the transition from single-barrel to small batch, it brought a new perspective to the product that was missing before the change. However, Willett’s batches are quite small, so keep in mind that no two batches will taste the same. They state they use at most twelve barrels per batch, meaning there can be wild differences between runs.

A Wide World of Single-Barrel Bourbons

There are many more single-barrel and small batch bourbons out there on the market to review; we’d never get them all in just one post. Just keep the basic rule in mind when approaching a small batch bourbon: there are no rules about naming conventions. Small batch can mean 12 barrels, like Willett, or it can mean 250, like Four Roses. By comparison to the industrial-scale distilleries, 250 is a tiny batch; but within the non-industrial producers, there can be a wild fluctuation between definitions. Please be careful, and always enjoy your bourbon responsibly!

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